[sixties-l] Apocalypse Then

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Sat May 05 2001 - 15:51:21 EDT

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    Apocalypse Then


    The massacre at Thanh Phongif that's what it waswas no aberration.

    By David Greenberg
    May 4, 2001

    Conflicting eyewitness accounts make it difficult to determine whether Bob
    Kerrey's Navy SEAL team killed Thanh Phong residents deliberately or
    accidentally. Still, the profound questions of guilt that were reopened by
    last week's reports of the 1969 incident deserve continued attention. If
    the massacre was premeditated, is Kerrey a war criminal? Or is it unfair to
    single him out in the madness that was the Vietnam War? How do we judge the
    soldiers who knowingly murdered innocents in what is now widely considered
    an unjust enterprise?
    Our judgment seems to depend, in part, on how common such acts were during
    Vietnam. Popular memory has tended to remember American brutality in the
    war as confined to a handful of high-profile atrocities. Most notably, in
    the 1968 massacre at My Lai, Lt. William L. Calley Jr. and his troops
    slaughtered between 350 and 500 villagers in a daylong murderous
    frenzy. Less well-remembered was the 1970 killing of 16 women and children
    by Americans at Son Thang, which led to the trial of five Marines and the
    conviction of two. With only a few such infamous episodes lingering in most
    people's memories, there's a tendency to assume that they must have been,
    as they were often called at the time, "isolated incidents."
    History suggests otherwise. Deliberate violence against civilians was
    fairly common during the Vietnam War. No one has ever conducted a
    systematic study of atrocities in Vietnam, and it's impossible to know how
    many went unreported or were covered up by senior officers. (My Lai was
    kept under wraps for a year, and Thanh Phong stayed hidden until last
    week.) But according to the psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, who interviewed
    Vietnam veterans extensively, "every returning combat soldier can tell of
    similar incidents [to My Lai], if on a somewhat smaller scale." Likewise,
    Gary Solis, who wrote a book about Son Thang, told the New York Times
    Magazine that far more GIs committed war crimes in Vietnam than the 122 who
    were convicted.
    This news is no secret. Starting in the mid-1960s, reports of atrocities
    against Vietnamese civilians began reaching American audiences and
    mobilizing the war's critics. In 1967, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About
    Vietnam compiled a thick report, In the Name of America, which detailed
    hundreds of possible war crimes, ranging from mistreatment of prisoners to
    incidents of Americans killing civilians without regard to their identity.
    After My Lai came to light in November 1969, the subject of American
    savagery moved to the front burner.
    Perhaps most important in bringing atrocities to light were the public
    hearings that Vietnam Veterans Against the War convened in Detroit in
    January 1971. Over three days, 150 servicemen related in grisly detail the
    barbaric deeds they and their peers had performed and the dehumanizing
    training they had received. One recalled that his platoon sergeant told him
    that if he found civilians in a hut, "if it's a male, kill him; and if it's
    a female, rape her." Another man recounted a gang rape of a young girl and
    said he knew first hand of at least 10 or 15 similar incidents. Still
    others confessed to torturing prisoners or throwing them out of
    helicopters. These were not cases of being unable to distinguish Viet Cong
    from noncombatants.
    Following the VVAW hearings, the group's leader, John F. Kerry (later Sen.
    John F. Kerry), told a Senate committee that such acts had occurred "on a
    day-to-day basis, with full awareness of officers at all levels of
    command." He summarized the testimony from the three-day hearings:
    They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears,
    cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and
    turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at
    civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot
    cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the
    countryside of Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war.
    The very existence of international laws to govern wartime behavior means
    that we expect men, even when placed in morally desensitizing environments,
    to abide by basic rules of humanity. Kerry and the veterans were arguing
    not that war absolves soldiers for their barbarism but something more specific:
    In Vietnam, Americans were at every stage trained and encouraged to follow
    their basest violent instincts.
    Other doves noted that U.S. military programs were perversely designed to
    ensure civilian deaths: the designation of "free-fire zones," which were
    (often wrongly) assumed to contain no civilians and where indiscriminate
    killing was officially allowed; the wanton bombing and napalming of regions
    known to contain noncombatants; and the CIA's Phoenix Program, which
    sanctioned the direct assassination of alleged Viet Cong leaders and led to
    the killing of thousands of civilians. Under the logic of the war,
    political scientist Hans Morgenthau argued, massacres such as My Lai were
    actually the natural outgrowth of American policy itself. "Since everyone
    in the countryside of Vietnam is to a lesser or greater degree our enemy,"
    he contended, "it is perfectly logical to kill everyone in sight."
    The anti-war left thus tended (contrary to myth) not to place primary blame
    on wayward GIs. Although there was no shortage of hostility to William
    Calley, most Americans, including anti-war activists, saw him as a
    scapegoat in the My Lai trials, since all the higher-ups involved in
    encouraging or concealing the massacre were exonerated while Calley got
    life in hard labor. (He wound up serving just three and a half years.)
    Indeed, rather than censuring the grunts, the left thought it more fitting
    to prosecute Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, and others who needlessly
    prolonged the war, as left-wing journalist Christopher Hitchens still howls
    Everyone sympathizes with the fighting men who were just carrying out
    orders in a misguided war. But some critics of the war, such as Robert Jay
    Lifton and Telford Taylor, rightly noted that following orders was no more
    an excuse in Indochina than it was at Auschwitz. The rules of war to which
    the Nazis were held to account at Nuremberg must also pertain in Vietnam.
    After all, they pointed out, not every American GI in Vietnam participated
    in atrocities. At My Lai, Sgt. Michael Bernhardt refrained from the
    slaughter, despite peer pressure that made him feel as if he, and not his
    trigger-happy buddies, were the one doing something wrong. An American
    soldier, Robert Ridenhour, conscience-stricken when he heard about My Lai,
    first brought it to light by writing a letter to public officials about it.
    Even many who had themselves partaken of criminal violence had the
    conscience to come clean soon afterward, like the scores of VVAW members
    who testified in Detroit. Their sense of moral responsibility in owning up
    to their actions during the height of the war's controversy stands in
    contrast to those who kept their actions secret for years, such as Bob
    Kerrey, who maintained a 30-year silence about Thanh Phong, despite a high
    public profile.
    The choices of collective guilt and individual guilt are often presented as
    mutually exclusive. Either a William Calley was guilty of perpetrating a
    massacre, it's said, or he was innocent because he was only a cog in the
    runaway U.S. war machine, and the military or the government or the nation
    was at fault. The dichotomy is a false one. In Vietnam, there was enough
    guilt to go around.

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